Columns for October 2012
Q: When I attempt to put my 3-and-one-half year-old daughter in her room for punishment, she refuses to go. I have to pick her up and take her, during which time she flails her arms, screams, and kicks. My back is paying for the struggle. Her dad doesn’t have this problem with her, by the way. What can I do to make her go on her own without getting physical with her?
A: Since you only describe the hassle involved in getting your daughter to go to her room, I’m going to assume that once she’s in there, she will stay until you set her free.
If so, then your only “mistake” (the quotation marks are purposeful) is in forcing her to go to her room. Don’t misunderstand me. When you direct her to go to her room, she should go, without struggle, under the power of her own two feet. The mistake is not that you tell her to go, the mistake is that you MAKE her go.
Currently, you tell her to go and she refuses, challenging you to force her. You accept the challenge, which means that even though you appear to “win,” you actually lose. How? By letting her define the terms under which she gets to her room. Furthermore, you end up paying more of a price for her misbehavior than she does.
In so doing, you’re violating my Agony Principle. It simply states that parents should not agonize over anything a child does or fails to do if the child is perfectly capable of agonizing over it herself. In other words, the emotional consequences of a child’s misbehavior should be borne by the child and the child alone.
The solution is for you to stop trying to MAKE your daughter go to her room. Instead, When she misbehaves, and you tell her to go to her room (everything is fine to this point), and she refuses, just shrug your shoulders, say “Okay,” and walk away.
That evening, immediately after the evening meal, you and your husband together should tell her that because she wouldn’t go to her room when you told her to go, she has to go to bed right then and there.
She will probably cry and protest, but that should be the end of it. Let that be your policy from now on. When she figures out (which should take no more than a few experiences of this sort) that if she doesn’t cooperate in a small consequence during the day, there’s a big one later, she’ll begin cooperating in the small one.
This is an application of what I call the Godfather Principle: To move the emotional consequences of misbehavior off of a parent’s shoulders (or back) onto the child’s, simply make the child an offer she can’t refuse. Marlon Brando was a parenting genius.
One last word: The next time your daughter refuses to go to her room for punishment, don’t tell her what awaits her after supper. Surprises keep children on their toes, minding their p’s and q’s, and that sort of thing.
Afraid of Mom
I recently received a letter from a grandmother who told me that her 14-year-old grandson is afraid of his single mother. When told this by her ex-husband, who was concerned, Mom said, “He’d better be!”
Mind you, the grandmother was not concerned in the least. She celebrated the fact, proudly reporting that her grandson is well-mannered, respectful, does well in school, performs chores willingly (even when he doesn’t want to), and has “above average” social skills.
In all likelihood-and I base this conjecture on many years of professional experience-the boy’s fear of his mother concerns his father because the overwhelming majority of today’s dads are trying to be their kids’ best buddies. They think that good parents try to please their children. The boy’s mother understands just the opposite: good children try to please their parents. She is spot on.
I was afraid of my mother (who was single for most of the first seven years of my life). That fear, I maintain, is the beginning of respect for women, something obviously lacking in all too many of today’s young “men” (even worse, too many young women don’t seem to care). But let me be clear on this. My mother never yelled, spanked, or even threatened to spank. In other words, I was not terrified of my mother. But I was afraid of her.
The question is, why? The answer is that she conducted herself as if she was in complete control at all times. She acted like exercising authority over me was the most natural thing she’d ever done. She made it clear that she was not there to be my friend, playmate, go-fer, or fixer. She expected me to entertain myself, do for myself, and fix my own problems (although she did fix those I was incapable of fixing). She was not, as are all too many of today’s moms (and dads), a vending machine to be taken for granted and disrespected when it doesn’t produce on demand. By the time I was three, Mom had created and was enforcing an emotional and physical boundary between her and me. Mom was a part-time job for my mother.
“John Rosemond,” she sometimes said, “you don’t need a mother right now and I’m not going to be one. Now, run along or I’ll put you to work around here.” And I ran along. And I was better off, although I rarely realized it.
A child does not possess the ability to comprehend such a natural display of power. Therefore, the child is “afraid.” I use the term to refer to a sense of respectful awe. By the way, according to my thesaurus, fear and awe are synonyms. The parent who is feared in this sense of the term doesn’t care what her child thinks about any decision she makes. She’s not a politician; she’s a leader.
The “fearful” child, therefore, doesn’t always like his parent’s decisions, instructions, and expectations. Nonetheless, he obeys because he intuitively knows that said parent is always acting in his best interest.
Sometimes, the child complains that this parent is “mean.” By that he means that he realizes the parent means exactly what she says. That’s one of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child, especially when it’s a woman giving it to a young man.
Afraid of Sharks
Q: Because he is afraid of sharks, my fourth-grade son does not want to participate in an upcoming school field trip to an aquarium. In all other respects, he is perfectly normal. He’s a great student, has lots of friends, and other parents and teachers love him. He doesn’t give us or his teachers any problems at all. So, should we make him go on this field trip or not? If he doesn’t go, he’ll have to sit in the principal’s office all day long. The only other option is to let him stay home that day. Your thoughts?
A: I don’t generally believe that adults should make accommodations in response to a school-age child’s irrational fears (I make certain exceptions for certain fears in toddlers and preschoolers), and a fear of aquarium-contained sharks is certainly irrational. Dragging your son kicking and screaming into the ocean would be an egregious breach of parenting protocol, but this is a far different matter.
You should simply tell your son that he has no choice but to go on the field trip. His fear of sharks does not qualify him as a special-needs student. Suggest that he closes his eyes when the class enters the shark exhibit. He most definitely should not be allowed to request that one of the adults going on the field trip stay outside the exhibit with him, and you should definitely communicate that expectation to his teacher.
More generally, one of the most counterproductive things parents can do is try to talk children out of irrational fears. Paradoxically, that sort of very well-intentioned attempt is likely to make matters worse. The more parents talk to a child about fears-in this case, any attempt on your part to reassure your son that the sharks are fully contained and that the tanks won’t suddenly break and release a contagion of air-breathing, fin-walking, man-eating sharks on the city-the more likely it is that the fear will become a self-drama, a personal soap opera the child will employ to attract undue attention to himself and control various situations.
Simply tell your son, “After much thought as well as consultation with a psychologist who has devoted his career to the study and treatment of children’s fears of aquarium sharks, we’ve decided you’re going on the school trip to the aquarium. You have our permission to close your eyes when the class goes into the shark exhibit, but you do not have our permission to inconvenience your teacher or any other adult because of your fear.”
If he persists in trying to persuade you to change your mind, sit down in a comfortable chair and say, “Now that I’m comfortable, you have my permission to try your best to make me change my mind. I will listen to anything you have to say.”
After he makes his best attempt to get you to reconsider your decision, simply say, “I’m sorry, but you’re just not persuasive enough. You’re going on the field trip. Do you have anything else you’d like to say?” Listen as long as need be, but keep saying “Nice try, but you’re still going on the field trip.” He will give up within ten minutes, and it will be ten minutes well spent.
Q: When my 3-and-one-half year-old son misbehaves, I generally take things away from him and he generally responds well. One lingering problem is that he tends to react physically when he’s mad at a classmate instead of talking it out and letting the teachers intervene. We have all encouraged him to use words when he’s angry, but he doesn’t seem to get it. Today he bit a classmate (the second time in a year this has happened), and got sent home. Once home, I fed him lunch and then confined him for the rest of the day to his bedroom with books and some trains. From now on, I plan on sending him to school every day with a “behavior report card” on which I’ve listed the problems of hitting, not obeying his teachers, not sitting still during circle time, and taking toys away from other kids. I’m going to ask his teachers to give him a mark every time one of the problems occurs. If he misbehaves five times in a school day, then I will confine him to his room when he comes home and put him to bed early. Biting will override the list and get him sent home immediately. Comments?
A: First, a “duh” statement: boys are more aggressive than girls. Unfortunately, in most preschool settings these days, boys are being held to female standards of behavior. This is not to say that aggression in boys ought to be overlooked, but female teachers and mothers are more shocked by it than are males, including most dads. (But then, women are even more shocked when aggressive behavior comes from a girl.)
When the perpetrator in question is a 3-year-old boy, there is no apocalyptic significance to the sort of behavior you’re describing. Even occasional biting-which tends to provoke near-hysteria among preschool staff (and mothers of bitten children)-is not pathological at this age and does not predict later adjustment problems. In the previous sentence, however, “occasional” is the operative word.
Boys are also more impulsive than girls and language is not their natural problem-solving medium. Trying to persuade your son to “use words” when he’s angry is a laudable effort, to be sure, but you’re not likely to see much success with this approach for another year or two…or three. This is another example of women expecting boys to be more like girls. As you’ve discovered, boys respond to concrete consequences. At much earlier ages, girls respond to words and are more successful at using them in social negotiations.
Your “Five Strikes, You’re Out!” plan is pretty much along the lines of the approach I generally recommend in situations of this sort. I would only add in 10 minutes of time-out when one of the target misbehaviors occurs. Taking him out of the group for that period of time will give him an opportunity to calm down and “reset.” It will also strengthen the “Don’t!” message. And yes, if he bites, his teachers should remove him from the group, call you, and keep him isolated until you arrive to take him home.
In the final analysis, the success of this plan hinges on everyone keeping their cool and cutting him no slack.
A Stepparent is still a Parent
Q: What is the role of a stepparent in parenting teenage step-children? My 19-year-old stepson moved in with us several months ago and is disrupting our marriage. He does what he wants, when he wants, and there are no consequences. How does one deal with a child that age when he refuses to follow the rules of the house?
A: Contrary to the advice given by most mental health professionals, even Dr. Phil, the proper role of a stepparent is to be a responsible parent, with all the privileges and authority pertaining thereto. The operative word is the noun, “parent,” not the prefix, “step.” The same applies to the word “stepfamily.”
I was raised by a stepfather who acted as though when I was in his home, he was my father, a person with full authority over me. He was not a step, someone to be walked on. I benefited from that even though I did not like it at times. My mother, to her inestimable credit, never interfered in his discipline of me. I benefited from that even though there were times when I didn’t like it. When it came to my stepfather, my mother did not enable disrespect or disobedience. He certainly benefited from that, but I benefited even more. Our family worked better as a result.
The problem in many if not most of today’s so called stepfamilies is that the stepparent is effectively disempowered by the “real” parent; therefore, the children do not have reason to respect or obey the stepparent. In these families, the emphasis is on the prefix “step.” I think it is significant that you didn’t mention your husband, but certainly implied that he enables his son’s disrespect of you and disregard of rules by imposing no consequences on his provocative, narcissistic behavior.
It is your husband’s responsibility to straighten out this young man, to let him know that he does not have permission to treat his wife with anything but the utmost respect. Is your husband willing to do that? Is he willing to put his foot down and tell his son that it’s either his way or the highway? If he’s not, then I am not going to pull any punches here: he’s lost his spine. But if so, he is in the company of many equally spineless men who value their relationships with the children of their first marriages over their relationships with their current spouses. And by the way, this indictment is not limited to male parents. There are plenty of mothers out there who will not let their step-husbands discipline children that are not “their own.” The question becomes: Who are these people married to anyway?
In my estimation, a 19-year-old who disrespects a stepparent and will not follow the rules of the house should find his own house…tomorrow, if not sooner. While he is away, change the locks, put his possessions on the front stoop, and pin a note to them wishing him well in his new adventure.